Eco-anxiety is like the bum bag – incredibly common among 18-year-olds, terrifyingly baffling to their parents, and a controversial faultline through generations.
In the past few weeks of climate change-related discussion, the concept has come up again and again. Eco-anxiety that is, not bum bags. (Although personally I’m a generational traitor who thinks they should have been left to die in the 90s, along with blue eyeliner and whiney grunge music.)
Eco-anxiety is the genuine concern about climate change and humanity’s dismal attempts to counter it. And young people have it bad. We’re gripped with a sense of unease ranging from low-level, constant discomfort to full-blown apocalyptical I’m-not-gonna-have-kids-cos-we’re-all-screwed panic.
It reaches as far down as the sandboxes of primary schools. Recent research out of Australia shows that 90 per cent of school kids are concerned about climate change, and 70 per cent of them think about it daily.
A friend of mine’s 7-year-old is having daily breakdowns because so many of his favourite animals are at risk of extinction. I’ve seen it first-hand: I’ve spent much of this year interviewing 18-year-olds about what it’s like to be 18 today. The one thing that unites them all is an overwhelming, omnipresent concern about climate change.
But what I find most interesting about the new concept of eco-anxiety is how parents and adults react to it. When I talk to anyone over 30 about it, almost all the reactions are along the lines of, “Young people need to calm down”.
Yes, there are a few who have vented their own apocalyptical angst around the water cooler, but most people seem to think teenagers are overreacting.
Now I do get it – well, part of it. I understand the superior “been there, survived that, calm down” attitude of the seasoned operator who grew up in the 50s or 60s with the threat of being zapped to radioactive pulp by the Soviets.
And I also know that part of this dismissiveness may just be an inherent, knee-jerk disgust for earnestness. (There’s nothing more earnest than young people talking about climate change.) And of course there are a lot of people who dismiss eco-anxiety because they’re very comfortable in their cozy worlds and don’t want to be troubled by climate change or young people.
So while I understand why many adults think the term is alarmist, can I just ask you to take a moment before you next tell us to calm down about eco-anxiety. Honestly, at best it feels a little dismissive. At worst, you sound kinda patronising.
Now I know that the language of eco-anxiety is highly charged, and sounds reminiscent of your angry teenage years. Yes, your grandkids may say they won’t have kids because we’ll all be scorched toast by then. And yes, that might be alarming.
But the thing to remember is that, however overblown you might find our expressions, the sentiment beneath them is still valid.
All the news suggests we shouldn’t be calming down. The research all points to the fact that we should be standing up and getting very, very worried about climate change. We should be firing up, demanding change and coming up with solutions. So it’s not very effective to be told to calm down when the facts paint such a grim picture.
Plus it’s the act of calming down and being complacent that’s the very thing we’re rallying against. So we were never going to adopt that as a strategy anyway.
And while I know things might sound dramatic, in some ways we need this hyped-up hyperbole. We need it not only because it reflects the urgency of the situation, but it also gets cut-through in a way that chilled, measured consideration doesn’t.
Look at the standing ovation Greta Thunberg’s emotional call to action got from the stuffy UN. She charged through in a way that moderate, restrained calls to action over the past few decades just haven’t.
And I know some people want their kids to calm down because parents are worried the kids simply can’t cope with the overwhelming anxiety. But how many times have you managed to calm down someone who’s stressed by simply saying, “Calm down!” I’m guessing not many?
No, the way to address eco-anxiety is to acknowledge it and harness it.
Panic is good, in that it gets us moving, but it can be paralytic if we get overwhelmed by it. So parents need to sit down and say, “Right, you’re worried, let’s make a list of things we can do right now that’ll help.” Instead of dismissing young people’s rage, let’s find ways to channel it productively into action.
That way we just might grow a whole new era of passionate, determined climate change solution finders.